KAT // FIN

Dream. Do.

Train travelling over Gokteik Viaduct and motorbike adventures over the hills in Shan state

We decided to do a three days trip to a town of Kyaukme after hearing recommendation from swedish Isabelle. Kyaukme is small town in Shan state between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. Train travelling between Mandalay and Hsipaw can be recommended! Landscape is propably the best I saw in whole Myanmar. Train left Mandalay at 4am and went over hills and rural villages. Actually travelling by train in Myanmar is an experience worth having. Train network covers the country pretty well. Trains move relatively slow (you can do the same journey by bus in half time or less!) and ride is bumpy in every direction. (You can imagine Linnanmäki’s rollercoaster now.) There is two classes in the train; the upper and the ordinary class. We took upper class seats as we did mostly 12-16 hour journeys. Upper class seats are wider and upholstered, ordinary class seats are wooden benches. Ordinary class was always crowded of local people travelling with the most unbelievable carriages…sometimes they even had chicken with them. We saw as well how one car was loaded full of goats!

DSC_3589 Train left Mandalay at 4am. When I woke up at 7 landscape looked like this…breathtaking morning light!

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    Vendors selling local strawberries and other foods and drinks through the windows

DSC_3623 First class travelling

DSC_3624 Takeaway coffee

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DSC_3659 Highlight of the train journey between Mandalay and Hsipaw is a bridge called Gokteik Viaduct. It was built by British in 1905. It is said to be second heighest in the world.

As many tourists hit to Hsipaw in order to do trekking we hopped out of the train couple of stations earlier and wished to organise our own trek in Kyaukme. Once again we didn’t have any bookings made in advance but things sorted out well and we got a guide from our guesthouse. Joy is a 26 years old Shan guy who has many years experience as a guide. We were thinking about doing actual trekking but when Joy told about motorbike trekking we decided to go for it instead! We had a 20 year old SaiSai as driver since neither of us knew how to drive motorbike. (I thought though that with one evening practise it would have been possible for us to drive bikes ourselves… :D) Having a driver turned out to be an excellent decision when we headed to the dusty routes and narrow paths which squirmed over the Shan hills.

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DSC_3722 Monastery

DSC_3721 Taking nap in the monastery

DSC_3712There is 37 spirits or ‘nats’ in Myanmar. Buddhists built these shrines so that nats could rest where-ever they want. There is shrines in every village. It is believed that you can see nats only with purest heart.

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We stayed overnight in small Shan village with a local family. Family didn’t speak a word of english nor we spoke Shan (except hi – mae son khaa, bye bye – la lai khaa or thank you – chom jau khaa, which Joy and Sai Sai taught us). We knew these words in burmese but it’s not considered nice to speak burmese in Shan state. Each state in Myanmar have their own language and ethnic minorities still practise their old traditions in each state. They rarely had tourists in that village we stayed and first time I really felt that I was far away from home! There was two families living under the same roof…what we heard – total of 14 people. In Myanmar families are large and it’s common to have two or three generations under the same roof of a two- or three-room house. People don’t have their own bedrooms and same room has many functions; during daytime room can serve as a kitchen and livingroom and bamboo mats are placed next to each other when it’s time for sleep.

We spent evening in the ‘living room’ with the family and two chicken which they treated like pets. It was pretty dark – one dim bulb in the middle of the room. Steam and smoke coming from kitchen filled the air. Most burmese still cook with open fire (also in restaurants) and in homes fireplace is often embedded to floor-level. Since villages are poor they have to control food amounts. Rice is often served with one or two small and bony pieces of meat with many kinds of sour vegetable sidedishes. Especially in Shan state they eat a lot of leaves and our dinner included a lot of rice, soup, eggs and two kind of curries made of these leaves.

DSC_3742 Village where we stayed overnight

DSC_3743 ‘Siskonpeti’ – Joy, SaiSai and Auli

Around ¾ of Myanmar population are rural-dwellers and much of a local life in going on around villages and farming the countryside. Main farming products in Myanmar are rice, corn, tea and opium. Tea is the main income for tribes living in the hills. We saw trucks carrying workers to tea plantations. Joy told that tea pickers don’t get paid in money but in tea. Half of the amount of leaves they pick they can keep.

DSC_3692 On the way to tea plantations

DSC_3747 Tea plantations

There is constant internal conflicts in Myanmar many of them taking place in Shan state. Joy was talking with the father of our homestay about recent conflicts between burmese soldiers and Shan rebels. Fights between burmese soldiers and ethnic minorities have been going on already 67 years and it seems that there is no end to them. Previous week rebels had killed burmese soldiers just 30 minutes drive away where we stayed. Joy’s previous trekker group had accidentally overstayed at the same place with 60-70 rebels. There hadn’t been any problem though, they had been smoking cigarettes peacefully together with the rebels. Conflicts are common in Shan state, almost every week either soldiers or rebels get killed. Situation is even worse near China border where opium is widely grown. Joy told that rebels are good for these villages…they protect their peoples’ rights. Before there were any rebels burmese soldiers came to these villages and forced villagers to give whatever they wanted, if it was food, women or money, they didn’t care. Joy told that if a Shan family has more than one child, one needs to join the rebels. Even many peace agreements are made in management level between rebels and soldiers, it seems that in the grassroot level fights can’t be stopped.

Joy’s dream was to have his own guesthouse. He had made some actions towards it already. He had bought a land for 4500 dollars last year. He wished to build 12 authentic bamboo houses there. We visited a couple of villages where Joy went to ask about the building costs of villagers’ houses. He wished to build a small summer house for himself first. Simple bamboo house could be built in Kyaukme for 1500 dollars including materials and carpenter’s salary. In Myanmar basic salary is around 200 dollars a month. I wish to be back in Kyaukme after 5-10 years to see how’s it going with Joy’s business. As determined as he seemed, I’m sure it will be a success!

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DSC_3781 Joy’s land – to be continued…

- Katariina

Nyaung Shwe and magical Inle lake

Our trip to Nyaung Shwe/Inle lake started with chaotic rush to the bus station in Yangon. Even we had left 1,5 hours earlier to make a trip which should have taken 30 minutes, our taxi driver had to call to the bus company and tell that we would be late. Luckily we made it to the bus only a couple of minutes late. Bus travelling in Myanmar is propably the worst in South East Asia. Even landscapes are beautiful, local people have terribly sensitive stomachs and bumpy roads cause a lot of vomiting. Many buses between the main tourist towns (Yangon-Inle-Bagan-Mandalay) are nightbuses. We arrived to Nyaung Shwe, a city near Inle Lake, in the middle of the night which is not the most practical time if you don’t have any hostel booked in advance. We relied on our good luck and luckily met a nice guy working for a guest house at the bus stop. We took a pick-up to a Palace Nyaung Shwe Guest house which was a little bit farther from Nyaung Shwe centre but turned out to be excellent and peaceful guest house.

It was our first day in Nyaung Shwe and during lunch we were already invited to a birthday party of a local restaurant keeper’s son. That’s a good example of Burmese hospitality. They didn’t expect any presents from us (we asked if there’s something we could give) they just wanted foreigners to accompany their celebrations. They offered us food and cake and didn’t expect anything back from us. We gave a ‘present’ though, later we were singing ‘happy birthday’ in finnish, english and korean with korean traveller Han and japanese Shunsuke who we met in our guest house. Locals were videotaping our singing!

DSC_3145 Birthday of ‘Joshwe’ at Mee Nge’s Gardenia Restaurant

DSC_3146 Mee Nge and Shunsuke

On the next day we headed to Inle Lake with this same group. To me, seeing Inle Lake was one of the most impressive places during our travels. Inle lake is home for 70 000-100 000 people of an ethnic minority group called Intha. Inthas have built their village above the lake. It is said that the local Shan chief (otherwise it is Shan people living in this area) refused to grant rights to Intha to land around Inle and that’s why they started to built their stilt houses on the lake itself. Inthas’ way of life is very unique with their floating gardens and one-legged rowing system.

Our long-tailed motorboat left early in the morning. It’s not the main tourist season now when summer has just started and temperature goes up to almost 40 degrees during the daytime but there were many tourist boats though. Still the impression of Inle Lake stayed pretty serene and peaceful. Inle lake is one of the main tourist attractions in Myanmar and tourism is well developed in Nyaungshwe and Inle area.

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DSC_3239Intha village above the lake

DSC_3274 Intha village above the lake

DSC_3210 Inthein market

The main income for Inthas are fishing, farming and hand-made goods like tools, carvings and other ornamental objects, scarves made of lotus and silk, silver jewellery and cheroots. Inthas have developed a lot of tourism around their lifestyle and as a tourist you will be taken to see many workshops where they produce these goods. We got to see silk and lotus weaving, scarf and cheroot making for example.

DSC_3217Scarves were made by long-necked women. We learned that they start to put rings to girls’ necks when they are 8 years old. They start with 10 rings. They add them (I don’t know how often) until they have reached the maximum of 25 rings. It’s Inthas tradition and they think it makes them more beautiful. Rings are made of bronze and I got to hold them…they were so heavy! Rings actually make your shoulders and collarbones go more down. That’s what gives the impression that your neck is very long.

DSC_3264Cheroot making workshop was our another stop. Cheroots are cigarettes produced in Myanmar. Inthas produce cheroot by wrapping tobacco mixed with anis and other flavors inside an indian cherry leaves. Natural filter is made of corn leaf.

DSC_3170Leg rowing/fishing

DSC_3177 Leg rowing/fishing

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Inthas unique rowing style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. (Wikipedia)

Atmosphere on Inle lake was just magical. It was great to see how Inthas have adapted their lifestyle so beautifully on Inle Lake. We saw schools for example, people bathing, fishing and carrying things on the lake. It felt funny…to notice that Inthas have all services they need just there, they don’t necessarily have to go to the mainland. They have succeeded to built even gardens above the lake where they grow vegetables. Imagine living so close to the nature.

DSC_3309 After day spent on the lake we rewarded ourselves with some rose wine in the nearby winery.

DSC_3314 Red Mountain Vineyards and Winery

Last day in Nyaung Shwe we rent bicycles and cycled to the hot springs nearby. On the way back to the town we stopped for dinner to tiny bamboo house which served as a small restaurant. We were the only customers. They had three rooms, first room for customers which had three tables and a small snack shop. Behind this ‘common room’ they had small kitchen where they cooked with gas stove and behind kitchen a small bedroom. Everything was made of bamboo. Beautifully detailed bamboo furniture were made by owner lady’s father. She told us that five men had built this house in just one week but even that she had built it with her husband it belonged to the government and that government could ask them to leave anytime.

DSC_3316 Having coffee break on the way to the hot springs. Local family was so welcoming even we didn’t share the same language.

DSC_3323 Small restaurant on the way to the hot springs…everything was made of bamboo

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    Charming owner in her kitchen…notice the floor construction

DSC_3321 Watching sunset in settings like this…not bad…

-Katariina

Pilgrimage to Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda

From Yangon we took a 6-hour nightbus to Kinpun. Kinpun is a small village 160 kilometres from Yangon. After finding accommodation in the middle of the night and sleeping there maybe three hours it was time to start trekking to Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda in a nearby hilltop. Kyaiktiyo is a holy site to Buddhists, third important in Myanmar after Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda and Mandalay’s Mahamuni Temple. It is believed that a hair of a Buddha is secreted inside a pagoda standing on the top of the rock. Speciality with Kyaiktiyo is the fact that that it’s defying gravity. Gilded rock is balancing above another rock and it seems that it might flip over the edge any minute. It is said that it’s possible to pull a string between these two rocks. Buddhists believe that it is the weight of the sacred hair which prevents the boulder from toppling into the ravine below.

Most of the people are transferred to Kyaiktiyo by trucks from Kinpun. Truck platform is crammed full of narrow benches that are loaded full of people. Trucks drive up and down winding roads terrible speed. We decided to do like the most devouted pilgrims do and hike up the mountain. We thought it would have been a nice couple of hours hike but actually it took us five hours to trek up 15 kilometres of serpentine roads surrounded by the jungle. We started at 6.30 and were on the top by midday totally exhausted. It was maybe 37 degrees when we reached the top. Many trucks were passing us on the way with people waving, showing thumbs-up and even videotaping us. We saw two monks doing the same route except that they were coming down. Another one of them walked without shoes. There is always someone more hardcore than you!

DSC_3087Kinpun village was very peaceful and had only a handful of other western tourists.

DSC_3089 Loading trucks

DSC_3070Trucks leave people 15-45 minutes before the top so everyone needs to walk at least a bit. There is an option though for those who aren’t able to walk at all. It is possible to hire sedan chairs carried by four men to carry them up. We saw a couple of those carriages.

DSC_3047 Only men are allowed to enter the boulder through the narrow causeway. They were applying golden leaves to the rock. Women can admire the rock from farther viewing pavilion.

DSC_3050 Buddhists were offering fruits, flowers, incences for example.

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DSC_3068 Mountaineous scenery through which we had walked

DSC_3083 We took a truck back down. It was like being in amusement park’s rollercoaster!

-Katariina

Saigon shakes

After three months of travelling arriving to Ho Chi Minh City (unofficially known as Saigon) felt like bumping suddenly into the more sophisticated world we had been for a long time. We had just travelled 26 hours by sleeper bus with one bus change from Hoi An. Our goal was to reach HCMC by New Years and that’s what we did. ‘Sleeping’ places in our bus were that type that could fit easily one slim 1,50cm tall asian person but try that with 1.65cm western person! So after many sleepless hours we arrived to HCMC which welcomed us with warming breezes of +30 degrees. It was definately time to get rid of that fleece which I had bought in Sa Pa!

First we noticed bright lights from skyscapers glimming in the horizon far before reaching the city. That was the first obvious and exciting sign that we were about to enter the real Asian city soon! As soon as I stepped out of the bus I sensed hot and humid temperature and traffic chaos of motorbikes. There is a little bit less than 10 million people in HCMC and almost everyone ownes a motorbike. City isn’t quite prepared for the traffic with so many motos…there’s isn’t really parking spaces as we know them in western countries. Many times you just park in the streets. Another funny thing which works perfectly here but would be hard to imagine having back in Finland is lack of traffic lights. How can all these people deal with this traffic without traffic lights, I first wondered? As I got to notice soon…easily! It’s most difficult for pedestrians as you might feel like kamikaze when you try acrossing the street first time with motorbikes bustling fast around you! The secret is to walk slow enough and not to stop nor speed up. Bikers will surely give you way. Stay calm and keep on walking seemed to work with me…

DSC_2084 Mid-day traffic in HCMC

DSC_2064 Stylish coffee shop

DSC_2068 Reunification Palace

DSC_2075 They had painted this classical General Post Office with this crazy orange colour! :D

DSC_2077Cool floor tiling at Notre Dame Cathedral

HCMC is very modern metropol and as Hanoi is Vietnam’s political hub, HCMC is Vietnam’s economical hub. People seem very stylish, educated and determined. I suddenly felt an great urge of getting a new hair cut and getting my nails and toes done. Haircut we did at Toni&Guy’s but I finally gave up the idea of having either pedicure or manicure. There isn’t really point of having them when you will soon travel to Cambodia where it’s propably wiser to look like a guerrilla. One really selfish and expensive purchase (in terms what is suitable for a backpackers wallet) I did here anyway as I heard there is especially good tailor in the city…I bought a woollen winter coat which was tailored to me according to my instructions. That coat together with 8 packets of world’s best vietnamese coffee Trung Nguyen I sent to Finland afterwards (with fingers crossed that customs duty won’t do any greater inspections in finnish border…)

DSC_2057 Winter coat fitting at Phi Phi Tailor’s

DSC_2024 Propably the best coffee in the world…

Have to say though that after going to the War Remnants Museum which is amazingly good (and horrible) museum about Vietnamese war I couldn’t feel more guilty and more like a ‘western person’ because of these egoistic desires I had been fulfilling…Seeing all that horror Vietnam has been going through for decades made me feel like an imperialist of an new era who just comes here to spend money as everything is so much cheaper that back in Europe. Luckily one-night-visit to the tourist street of Pham Ngu Lao made me realise that I wasn’t the bad white guy. Seeing so many drunken western tourists in one area behaving really disgustingly made me want to stop travelling for a while. I didn’t want to have this ‘badge’ over me being ‘one-of-those-western-tourists’. Especially bad feelings gave one thing we saw in the middle of the night in New Years Eve in Pham Ngu Lao. A young vietnamese girl dressed to a blue bling bling top and miniskirt was showing the way to a young western boy in the middle of the night. They were walking fast to a scruffy hotel and there was no doubt it was only about prostitution.

DSC_2013 Pham Ngu Lao area in daytime

After travelling three months and sleeping almost every night in guesthouses or hostels makes you really miss very basic stuff from your ‘normal’ life. Things like doing your own laundry, going to grocery store and making yourself a cup of coffee or a slice of bread. If you are feeling slighly hungry you can’t just go to your fridge and crab something…you have to go out and find every single piece of food or drink you put to your mouth. As Auli has kind of relatives living in HCMC we were excited! Finally we could just enjoy for a ‘normal’ life for a while. Trung and Nam has been amazing hosts for us in the very centre of HCMC. We have enjoyed every night we have been able to sleep in the tatami of their flat and every cup of morning coffee which have been waiting for us in the kitchen table after Trung and Nam have already left for work (this started when Trung noticed we really couldn’t make decent vietnamese coffee). We have enjoyed those days we have just stayed ‘at home’ instead of going to the city and we have enjoyed a lot every time Trung and Nam have taken us for dinner with their motorbikes. When I asked Nam if he enjoyes riding motorbike in the evening after dark in this dazzling city he replied that maybe twice a week. He is just so used to it and hates all the traffic jams and polluted air. Of course Nam’s point is easy to understand but for us riding those bikes has been magical. It was so horrible every time…to notice those familiar ‘landmarks’ showing that we were already near our place. Because we just didn’t feel the ride should never end :)

DSC_2047 View from Trung’s ‘yard’. I used to look at this and drank my morning coffee. This is where all the neighbors gathered every morning for ‘Bun Rieu’ – noodle soup with a lot of stuff a.k.a one type of a breakfast here.

DSC_2049 How much can you enjoy just being able to do your own laudry?

DSC_2052 One day when we stayed at home and got to deal with local police…that’s another story though. Nam doing presentation for his final thesis

DSC_2054 Having finnish dinner one evening with Nam, Tak and Trung

DSC_2055 Finnish meatballs and mashed potatoes can be prepared in Vietnam as well! Raspberry soup wasn’t as big success…Trung was wondering how can we eat something so sweet

DSC_2006 Picture taken when we were seeking for a dinner place one evening. Something we did almost every evening. Nam went to ask the way and I got my chance to be a paparazzi.

We owe you big time guys!!! -Katariina

Travelling across India

To me one of the best feelings when travelling is the feeling you have when you are actually moving to a new place. At these times you can have the great perception of really ‘living in the moment’. During our 5 weeks in India, we have been travelling from north to south through following cities; Delhi-Agra-Jaipur-Jaisalmer-Jodhpur-Udaipur-Mumbai-Goa-Alleppey-Amritapuri-Kollam-Varkala-Thiruvananthapuram (Trivendrum). Even there has been overwhelmingly lot to see in India, worth mentioning are also different ways of transportation here. Our transportation methods have included many of them – from having our own driver to local trains, sleeper trains (in different classes), sleeper buses, local buses and auto-rickshaws.

Our route in India can be seen here.

What we were told in Delhi, was that booking train or bus tickets might be difficult so we made our transportation bookings via a tourist office from Delhi until Goa. Long distance train tickets from Goa to Ernakulam in Kerala we fixed ourselves on the road. Booking trains in India might seem difficult at first (and stressful especially if you arrive to Delhi…) If you want to reserve tickets in Internet you have to go through difficult log in-systems. What requires more effort but is a bulletproof way – is booking tickets directly from train stations. Sleeper classes fill up well easily in advance so booking as far in advance as possible is recommended. In India there are many different classes to travel: just to mention some of them 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, sleeper and 2nd class seater, AC=Air conditioning. We’ve been travelling in classes 2AC, 3AC and basic sleeper class. For longer journeys sleeper classes are highly recommended and very convenient! Difference between 2AC and 3AC is basically in the amount of conveniences; in 2AC there are beds in 2 storeys, curtains, blankets, bed sheets and own reading lamps. In 3AC there are beds in 3 levels and no curtains nor reading lamps but blankets are available. 3AC was fair enough for us really, 2AC felt luxus, basic sleeper class was ok for one night. Railways in India are in good condition so travelling by train here is actually very reasonable way to travel. There is also great enquiry offices in the stations, where we’ve been asking questios like ‘Are we at the right station?’, ‘Is our train on time?’, ‘From which platform it departs?’ or ‘Can you show our places in the train?’ Asking about the right station is wise – we noticed only 45 minutes before our train was departing from Mumbai that we were in the wrong train station (our ticket said Mumbai CST which apparently could be translated either Mumbai Central Station or Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). We had chosen the wrong translation but luckily made it to the train due to a fast cab driver! :D

DSC_1384 Overview from sleeper class train

DSC_1388Sleeper class beds

DSC_13752AC Sleeper class beds

Local trains are a little bit funnier. While in Mumbai we took a local train a couple of times to travel from our guest house to the city centre. Local trains are way much cheaper way to travel than having a taxi or an auto-rickshaw. Booking ticket from station was easy and people were willing to help with platforms and directions. Only thing that caused some problems to me, was getting into the train. When the train stops at the platform, people just rushes in pushing each other. I was too polite and was left a little behind. Others from our group were already in the train when I noticed that train started to move (fast!) and I had only my hand inside the train handle. Only way was to jump and others helped to pull me in…crazy really but I made it! There are special ‘women only’ cars in trains which aren’t so crowded and are more safe to female travellers. In mens’ cars people were really hanging out from the door holes…there is no doors in trains (natural air-conditioning is working well though).

Sleeper buses that we have took a couple of times have been both good and bad. Roads in India are in equally good condition but the problem is that buses aren’t. Best buses to travel here are Volvos. You can book either sleeper or seater bus. In sleeper buses you can have your small little ‘cabin’ for one or two person. Or like indians do it – the whole family travel in one two-person-cabin. Cabins are okay, the problem is that if you don’t have your cabin or seat from the middle of the bus, the ride will probably be b.u.m.p.y. We had one really horrible ride from Jodhpur to Udaipur when during our 6-hour-ride we had a two-person-cabin from upper level and I hit my head so many times to the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep at all, my head just bumping all the time…But could have been even worse though, some people were sleeping in narrow corridor without any mattresses just some newspaper below them. In sleeper class buses, cabins have soft, leather-upholstered fixed mattresses but no blankets. Air conditioning is normally very hard, so we preferred a non-AC which is obviosly cheaper as well. The only ‘real’ problem with long-distance buses are toilet breaks. I mean it’s not like there isn’t any of them it’s just when bus staff speaks hindi when it’s time for a break so sometimes it’s hard for us to understand if it’s toilet break, food break or if they are just getting in or dropping out some people or if someone just wanted to buy coconuts! (Once we really stopped just because someone wanted to buy coconuts from a fruit stand…) What we noticed lately though…you could have your personal toilet breaks also if you ask bus staff nicely ;)

DSC_1318 Overview from sleeper bus

DSC_1316 Two-person ‘cabin’

Local short distance buses are the best if you want to move between two cities with cheap price and you don’t need to sleep in the vehicle. It is very funny how they act here and in India (and actually in Nepal as well). There is driver and one ‘assistant’ guy on the bus. Assistant guy is normally hanging out the door and shouting the name of the place where the bus is heading. People rushes in and sometimes buses don’t even stop properly…you need to jump in or out when it’s the right place. Normally assistant guy is shouting ‘fast, fast, fast!’ at this time so you can imagine me with my 20kg backpack jumping out of the moving vehicle…

WP_20141126_007 Local buses are our friends!

Good option to move inside a city is an auto-rickshaw…if they work! What happened to us once, was that we were driving with a friend’s rickshaw when the accelerator stopped to work. We were somewhere in the outskirts of Udaipur and suddenly the whole day was spent either pushing or fixing the rickshaw. That made out a good adventure though!

DSC_1360 Pushing rickshaw somewhere in Udaipur

DSC_1361 Fixing rickshaw…

DSC_1352 Driving rickshaw

As a closure I can say that our time in India was full of different experiences. Every day gave us something we didn’t expect to experience in the morning. Travelling in India isn’t always the easiest and you need to develope your nerves to be as good as holy cows walking in the streets have. But we made it with zero food poisoning, robberies, rapings or missed trains… So please put away your negative images and expectations about India. Dont’ believe everything you hear or read in the media. It’s mostly the bad news what catches peoples’ ears and make them fear things. Come and experience yourself. India is truly interesting mix of religion, culture, history and nature. To us India was incredible and there is no doubt that we will be back! India definately left me longing for more.

-Katariina

Kerala highlights

After Goa we headed to the state of Kerala for two weeks. We took a train from Goa to Kochin and continued travelling by local buses to Alleppey, Amritapuri, Kollam and Varkala. Kerala is lush and serene state in the west coast of very southern India. It is pretty wealthy state, people are educated and literature rate is high. In Kerala, you can enjoy beautiful Indian nature as it is home for famous water canals called ‘The Backwaters’. The only problem here is the weather which is super humid and hot according to the finnish standards and you can expect to sweat a lot and your clothes never get dry! It is winter in India now so I don’t want to know how summer will be :D

When travelling in Kerala, first we went to Alleppey for a couple of days. Alleppey is the main place for hiring houseboats or canooes to the Backwaters. We didn’t want to book houseboat yet in Alleppey because we thought that renting one in Kollam wouldn’t be so touristic experience. In Alleppey we didn’t do much. Just got some idea about the backwaters…otherwise it didn’t seem very interesting city. We relaxed after Goa by taking yoga classes from the excellent homestay-restaurant-place called The Lemon Dew and enjoyed their delicious banana pancakes, fish dinners and cozy atmosphere.

Next we transferred ourselves to Amritapuri which is located between Alleppey and Kollam, about 1,5 hours south from Alleppey. Amritapuri is pretty easy to reach by local buses from Alleppey and Karunagapally. Amritapuri is the headquarters for Mother Amma’s worldwide mission with many visitors and devotees of Amma. Amma just arrived from her visit to Vatican as we stayed in the ashram and we were lucky to receive her famous hugs! You can read more about our visit in the ashram from here.

Of course we wanted to experience the famous Backwaters too, so next we went to Kollam in order to do so. Kollam is much more untouristy than Alleppey and there isn’t so many houseboats there. We didn’t have any reservations made in advance, we just basically went to the boat jetty to check out couple of tourist offices to compare prices and boats. It’s wise to check houseboat in advance, there is differences in the conditions of the boats…We rent a houseboat for one night. The price around 8000rs (100€) from 2 persons, included captain, own chef who cooked amazing keralan style meals and an assistant guy. There is houseboats of different sizes, you can rent one with one or more bedrooms. Houseboats (or kettuvallams) have normally nice balcony and terrace where you can enjoy the beautiful views of the Backwaters. We did a trip to Munroe Island, which is located about 30 kilometres from Kollam. We stopped in the island for having a village tour in smaller canals with canooe. We saw fish farms and houseboat building, a lot of eagles and beautiful houses that were built so close to the narrow waterways. Sometimes we needed to kneel down, there were low bridges and even tunnels from which we were going through with actually a quite long canooe. Whole setting in Munroe Island was magical. No other sounds than religious singing from one of the island’s temples. We stopped overnight in Munroe Island and continued our trip back to Kollam when sun rose in the next morning. You can imagine enjoying breakfast there at the boat’s terrace, surrounded by the backwaters, with sunrise in the horizon and no other sounds than the motor of our boat…pure pleasure.


DSC_1395 Our houseboat

DSC_1400 Finnish Independence day celebration 6.12.2014

DSC_1408 Master chef Eric…

DSC_1411 …prepared excellent food to us! A lot of it!

DSC_1417 Canooe trip in Munroe Island

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DSC_1466 Fish farm in Munroe island

DSC_1468 Fish farm in Munroe island

DSC_1470 Munroe canal – sunrise

Closure for our trip in Kerala was one week relaxation holiday in serene and peaceful Varkala beach. Our time in India has included a lot of travelling and we have been changing places often. We haven’t stayed in many places for over two nights so settling down for a week in Varkala felt a very welcome breath-taking. Beaches in Varkala are tiny compared to Goa but positive side is that they are not so touristy. Varkala has main beach and smaller beaches, which all are surrounded by majestic cliffs so the whole setting is very beautiful. Waves are very strong and sun burns easily so there’s some points to consider. There is mainly western tourists in Varkala and the whole place is so small that you will soon start to regognize faces. People are nice and you will hear ‘hi’ or ‘how are you’ from every direction all the time. Varkala is perfect place to spend quiet beach holiday, but it’s also the place to attend yoga courses or classes. Many guesthouses offer ‘pop-in’ yoga classes for 200-300 rupees. Another great thing here is ayurvedic treatments which are also offered in many places near the cliffs. Ayurveda is ancient Indian science of wellbeing by natural methods and herbal medicines. There is a lot of small and reasonable priced guesthouses in Varkala and restaurants have traveller-wise prices as well. If you are looking for a place to spend a peaceful beach holiday with yoga and relaxed atmosphere, Varkala is a perfect option! To me, this place is a paradise.

Some examples of prices in Varkala:

  • accommodation for 2 people with attached bathroom 600rs (~8€) per night
  • breakfast including fresh fruit juice, huge porridge with fruits and coffee pot 200 rs (2,5€)
  • yoga class, duration 2 hours 200rs (2,5€)
  • ayurvedic treatments/1,5 hours x 3 days 6000rs (80€) www.ayushy.in

    DSC_1489 Varkala beach

    DSC_1491 Coziest restaurant in Varkala…

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      …with ‘I love you’-staircase…

    DSC_1497…which didn’t have finnish version until now!

    -Katariina

  • Days in the Thar

    After busy sighseeing days in Agra and Jaipur, we finally settled down for a couple of days. City of Jaisalmer, or ‘The Golden City’ is located in the Thar desert near Pakistan border. Whole city is built using only yellow sandstone and the Fort reminds a big sandcastle rising above the city. Jaisalmer itself is pretty small place but what makes it interesting is the fact that the former fort is still in use and around 4000 people lives inside it. It’s full of narrow streets, shops and roof-top restaurants.

    In Jaisalmer, it was also time for us to test another extreme conditions after Annapurna. Thar is the second largest desert in the world after Sahara and obviosly, there’s no point of going so near the desert without actually going to the desert so we booked a camel safari as a part of our staying in Jaisalmer. We drove 45 kilometres from Jaisalmer to Pakistan direction to a village called Khuri to start our one-night-safari. (Actually we noticed that it was only a camel ride to the dunes to see sunset and we returned to Khuri for dinner afterwards…though, it’s also possible to book actual safaris to the desert for more than one night where all the food is prepared by camelmen in the desert as well). Still, we were happy with our safari because after dinner a jeep took us back to the desert to spend a night there. We got to sleep in the sand under the stars having only mattresses and blankets with us. Complete silence surrounded us and the only light we had was campfire. Sky was bright with so many stars. We fell asleep immediately after the fire had burnt out and slept tight all night long. Could have stayed for another night…

    And now slight subject change! During our stay in Jaisalmer, we confronted interesting facts about India. It’s strange, in India as well as in Nepal, you don’t see so many women in the streets. It seems that men are everywhere; in hotels, restaurants, cafés, barber shops, whatever-else-shops, tailor’s, offices, chilling in the streets…Women can be seen mostly when you drove through smaller villages. They are working with household chores or in the farms or fields, carrying water, vegetables or what-so-ever above their heads. That’s due to religion…In India, hinduism is the major religion, islam being the second. When talking to local people and especially to young men, they start to speak easily about the caste system and arranged marriages in India. They have told that most of the marriages here are still arranged: We met a 20-year-old boy who was about to get married with a 15-year-old-girl in couple of months. They both were muslims and due to caste system it’s impossible for them to marry outside their own religion or caste. The boy said he has a hindu girlfriend now, but he must hide her from his parents and meets this girl secretly during night. Of course he has to leave her when he gets married, he admitted. We asked if he knew if his coming wife had a boyfriend as well, he replied that it’s impossible for a muslim girl to have boyfriends. Girls are taken to school and back home by their parents and they are not allowed to go outside these places alone. First time this couple will speak to each other is when they get married. Their parents had chosed them for each others and in case they don’t like each other it’s a real pity – getting divorced is almost impossible in India and at least divorced people aren’t appreciated. So for all the people who can chose love marriage…you are lucky!

    DSC_1227 Fort of Jaisalmer

    DSC_1228 Fort of Jaisalmer

    DSC_1196 Shops inside the Fort

    DSC_1205_edit View over the rooftops inside the Fort

    DSC_1216 View over the rooftops inside the Fort

    DSC_1242 Camel safari with excellent camelmen!

    DSC_1263 My crazy camel chilling…He was littlebit hot-blooded :D

    DSC_1269 Taleban and camel

    DSC_1273 Auli looks cool!

    DSC_1274 Camelman chilling on the dunes

    DSC_1253 Camelman chilling on the dunes

    DSC_1283 Our team!

    DSC_1288 Sunset in the Thar

    DSC_1293 Our night camp in the Thar

    -Katariina

    The Tourist // Agra and Jaipur in pictures

    Picture showcase of our days in Agra and Jaipur. 4 days in these cities were full of sightseeing, sun and polluted air (Agra is the worst so far what is comes to pollution!). Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state in India and it´s also called ‘The Pink City’. Buildings in the old city were once painted pink to greet british royals and property owners still have to keep the facades pink these days. Enjoy!

    DSC_0966 We’ve seen so many palaces, forts and tombs. Itimad-Ud-Daulah’s Tomb, Agra.

    DSC_0973 Flooring at Itimad-Ud-Daulah’s.

    DSC_0998 Agra Fort

    DSC_1016_edit Taj Mahal was as breathtaking as in the pictures.

    DSC_1024 Seeing a white woman is a big thing to some indians. Sometimes we feel like statues they want to have photographs with.

    DSC_1034 From our hotel’s balcony I saw another side of India. A slum.

    DSC_1046 Fatehpur Sikri, a fort that had been working only for 14 years in the 15th Century and then been abandoned!

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      Sending wishes by binding strings to Sheikh Salim Chishti’s Tomb in Fatehpur Sikri.

    DSC_1068 Galtaji Monkey Temple, Jaipur. Hindus came to bathe in this holy (dirty!!!) water. This side was for females. Smell was terrible.

    DSC_1097 Ghost Town of Galtaji…only 30 holy men were living here!

    DSC_1081 Monkey Temple, Jaipur

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      Monkey Temple, Jaipur

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      Auli feeding monkeys.

    DSC_1099 Elephants in Amber Fort, Jaipur

    DSC_1107 Riding an elephant to the fortress of Amber, Jaipur.

    DSC_1110 Riding an elephant to the fortress of Amber, Jaipur.

    DSC_1127 Amber Fort where Jaipur was once lead.

    DSC_1164_edit Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) Jaipur

    DSC_1177_edit Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) Jaipur

    DSC_1148 Hand printing textile with wooden blocks in a small local factory, Jaipur.

    DSC_1131 Watching Jaipur from above. Jaigarh Fort.

    - Katariina

    Difficult start in Delhi

    In Nepal, we found traveling relaxed and easy and people reliable. Things changes totally when we arrived to Delhi…We knew that tourist gets fooled here but what confronted us from the very beginning, we didn’t expect.

    Thinks started to go against our plan since we entered out the airport. We had an address of a hostel from Pahar Ganj area, which is the ‘traveller ghetto’ in Delhi full of cheap hostels and restaurants. We took a taxi from the airport. There was a guy who offered us a taxi and with whom we negotiated the price to Pahar Ganj area. He got in to the car (which now seems suspicious but back then I thought maybe he was guiding the actual taxi driver to the right place). We drove to the center of the Delhi but we didn’t had map of the city yet then. (I had been lazy in Nepal and hadn’t downloaded India maps to my cellphone…stupid!) Well when we reached the center, suddenly we saw a road block. These men said it was Pahar Ganj area inside the road block (there were signs of Pahar Ganj, but of course we didn´t know how the area was suppose to look like and believed them). They said there had been a muslim demonstration earlier that day because of a hindu festival going on in Delhi and police must have closed the whole Pahar Ganj area. ‘Ok’, we thought, luckily we didn’t book any hostel in advance, because obviously it was impossible to go to Pahar Ganj area, and we would have lost the hostel deposit.

    What to do? Men said that they could take us to the nearest tourist information centre so that we could solve the thing. We thought that it was fair so they took us to tourist information centre. We got in, the place looked reasonable and we were sat to tourist officer’s room. We asked if he knew about the closure of Pahar Ganj area and he said that there had been other tourists coming to his office telling the same. We asked him help because we needed another hostel to spend couple of nights in Delhi. The officer said that now it was the most popular tourist season in Delhi and it might be impossible to find any hotels here. We told him our budget and he wrote down some names of hostels to which another guy started calling (or that’s what it was said to us). Meanwhile the officer asked about our plans in India. We actually didn’t have any direct plans yet then. We thought we would make them up during our stay in Delhi. When he kept asking we said some names of the cities we had been thinking to visit. He started to make some route schedule to us. Meanwhile the caller guy came back shaking his head – no rooms left from any hostels. There were rooms left only in five star places costing like 300$ per night. The officer suggested that we should leave Delhi as soon as possible. Not only hotels but also many trains were sold out months earlier because now it was the high-season…BUT he could book a cab for us to Jaipur. If we would leave during the same day there was a hostel for us in Jaipur and we wouldn´t have to pay 300$ per night in Delhi. We thought that no way we were continuing the trip straight away. We wanted to rest and think so we left the tourist information place and told to our taxi guys we wanted them to drive us to the nearest internet café. What they then said to us (we were already driving) – there wasn’t any internet cafés in Delhi. What a bullshit, we thought. They offered to take us to another tourist information centre. We said fine, maybe we could use their internet.

    So another similar looking tourist office who told exactly the same thing: ‘Delhi was super busy, no hotels, only suite costing 300$ a night. No available trains to nearby cities, impossible to book alone. If we would leave straight away, we would be in Jaipur in the same day and in Agra on the next day…’ We said no way, we wanted to have a cheap hostel, there must be some left in the city this big as Delhi. He said he couldn´t help us so we said bye bye and left to the street – this time without our drivers. I tried to call to the embassy of Finland in Delhi but my phone couldn´t contact. We asked a rickshaw driver to take us to the Pahar Ganj. Again the same thing…a road block – Pahar Ganj was closed. BUT he could take us to India Government Tourist Office which was also mentioned in my guide book. Fair enough, we thought so he took us to another tourist office (what we thought now was the Goverment office). The only bad thing was that it looked very very similar than the two others. But what can you do, we couldn´t check from the map where we were and didn´t know the exact name of the streets. So we got in and said straight away to the officer that the only thing we needed was a cheap hostel for two nights in Delhi. This time he did what we asked but suggested us to come back as soon as possible to make booking for the rest of our trip because it was busy and trains and hotels full and blaa blaa blaa. He offered to pick us up from our hotel on the same day or the day after. We said it was okay, we knew their address, they had underlined the Gov. Of India Tourist Office from my map. I said we could manage there ourselves later. The officer said we wouldn´t find it and it was dangerous for two white girls to travel alone in Delhi…he would get someone to pick us up from the hotel on the next day. We didn´t say anything back and took rickshaw to our hotel. In our hotel wi-fi didn´t work so we couldn´t start investigating any facts yet but made a rough plan where we would like to go during our 5-week-stay in India.

    On the next day we had the city map and took a rickshaw to the centre near the Government Tourist Office. This time we could follow from the map where we were driving. On the way we happened to drive past yesterday’s last tourist office and we noticed it was far away from the Gov. of India Tourist Office! We were so glad we hadn’t booked any longer trips in panic earlier and that we had left the hotel alone without anyone coming to pick us up. We headed to café and aimed to use wi-fi but there were problems with the connection…Luckily there was an indian boy sitting next table who politely chit-chatted with us and after hearing our story about our first day in Delhi, offered to help us. He guided us to the Government Tourist Office which was located in the center of Delhi, in Janpath street near Connaught Place. And this time we could see it ourselves from the map that we were in the right location. With the officer we made bookings for the next two weeks in India including Agra-Jaipur-Jaisalmer-Jodpur and Udaipur. It also included trains further to Mumbai and Goa and flight back from Kerala to Delhi in the end of the 5-week-period. We got a driver with whom we would travel the first days. For rest of the day he took us for Delhi sighseeing. After rough start things started to look slightly brighter…Lesson to learn: don´t trust people in Delhi and keep your head!

    DSC_0953 Mughal Emperor Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi

    DSC_0942 Mughal ruler Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi

    DSC_0955_edit Stone writing in Gandhi Smriti (Museum of great freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi.)

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      Way to the Martyr’s Column where Gandhi was assassinated.

      DSC_0963 South Block of the Secretariat Buildings in New Delhi…one of the top places of world’s politics!

      -Katariina

    This is Bandipur

    When heading back from Pokhara to Kathmandu we decided to spend two nights in tranquil, little town called Bandipur. Bandipur is located 8km away from Kathmandu-Pokhara highway so it was perfect stop for us because it didn´t take any extra travelling time to go there. Bandipur is an old Newari people village with beautiful 18th-century buildings. Atmosphere was super-slow and relaxed, we spent two days there wandering slowly around and sitting in restaurants reading books.

    We were lucky to be there in the time of a religious festival. Don´t know whether it was hindu or buddhist one. Religions mix here in Nepal and especially amongst Newari people drawing line between Hinduism and Buddhism isn´t always obvious. During our first day in Bandipur, we walked pass a small temple where there were a group of old women sitting in the yard. They were playing drums and singing religious songs. We stopped there for a while and they asked us to join their playing. By any means it didn´t feel appropriate to take any photos of that moment…unfortunately! I got to play this very tiny piano and oldest one of the ladies, who was singing in a loudest voice and who was lacking all the upper teeth, was very talkative and spoke to us a lot. Unfortunately we understood only bodylanguage since all she talked was nepalese. We shared a couple of songs and bananas with these grannies.

    In Nepal, children dance a lot. During our trek to A.B.C. as well as during our time in Bandipur, we got to see children dancing parties many times. It seems to be a very natural way for them to express themselves and also to spend their free-time here. To my opinion, best dancers have been boys. Someone puts a music on from a cassette player or then they play drums etc. and sing themselves. They form a big circle where one or more of them is dancing in the middle while others are clapping hands on the sides. While we went pass them they asked us to join as well. Big white women didn´t have the guts to participate…yet :D

    DSC_0883Bandipur’s main street

    DSC_0845

    DSC_0854

    DSC_0862 View from our hotel

    DSC_0870 During the festival, people decorated all the temples in the village with floral-bindings and carried offerings (rice, red powder and yellow flowers) to their gods.

    DSC_0879 We got tikas to our foreheads from one of the temples. Tika is a symbol of the prescence of the divine. Tika is made of mixing offerings into a paste.

    DSC_0881 Floral-bindings and carved wood details in Bindhyabashini Temple in Bandipur.

    DSC_0882 Bindhyabashini Temple

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    DSC_0888 Himalayas could almost been seen behind the village…if it would have been clearer air.

    -Katariina